Egyptian president: Time to reform Islam, purge 'discourse of extremism'

by Gregory Tomlin |

(he Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS)Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi speaks in Cairo, Egypt, on May 30, 2016.

CAIRO (Christian Examiner) – Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has issued a bold call for a "religious revolution" to root out radical Islamists in the Middle East and elsewhere, the country's English-language daily al-Ahram has reported.

It is believed the statement is the first of its kind from a leader in a predominantly-Arab country that has struggled to defeat radical influences, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State. ISIS has recently began to conduct terror operations in the Sinai.

Al-Sisi, a Sunni who came to power after a military coup d'etat ousted the radical Muslim Brotherhood from power, said during a nationally televised address last week that he hoped a reformation of the Islamic faith would challenge the standing of terrorists and help in "purging religious discourse of extremism."

May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion.
- President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi

The address came on the heels of the Islamic State's terror attack on the Ataturk National Airport in Turkey. That attack killed more than 40 people.

"The Muslim world is going through a dangerous turning point and is facing unprecedented challenges targeting its existence and people, [and facing this] requires concerted efforts from all of us while putting all differences aside," Al-Sisi said in the address.

The paper also noted that the address fell on Laylat Al-Kadr [The Night of Destiny], when Muslims believe the angel Gabriel ("Jibril" in Arabic) delivered the first verses of the Koran to Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

Al-Sisi has called for reform before. In 2014, even before the current government was framed and the Muslim Brotherhood still had some influence, the Egyptian Army general said it was wrong for the country to be so reliant on Islamic teachings that could not align with modernity.

"Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam – rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years," Al-Sisi told a group of military leaders.

He also called "on all who follow the true Islam to improve the image of this religion in front of the world, after Islam has been for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam."

Al-Sisi has also been willing to build bridges. He visited a Coptic Christian church during a Christmas service in January 2015 and also ordered the military to rebuild a Christian church destroyed by a Muslim mob.

Both actions put some credibility to his remarks given on New Year's Day at Egypt's Al-Azhar University in Cairo. There, Al-Sisi spoke to Muslim scholars and asked them to "rethink religious discourse" and, hopefully, to "purge is of the flaws that negatively affect Islam."

During that address, Al-Sisi said Islamic scholars needed to "take a long, hard look at the current situation."

"It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world," he said.

"It is inconceivable that this ideology – I am referring not to 'religion,' but to 'ideology' – the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult."

Al-Sisi said the radical agenda, which calls on 1.6 billion Muslims to kill the remaining 7 billion people in the world to establish a global caliphate, is "inconceivable."

"May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion," al-Sisi told the Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar.